Ship captains of Rhode Island used their ships and experience both for their own profit as armed privateers and also for the Colony’s war power at sea

Since its founding the colony of Rhode Island was an agreeable place for pirates to outfit. Read about Rhode Island pirates. Rhode Island was also a great place for basing merchant ships for importing and exporting goods overseas or within the American colonies. By early 1700, most men in Providence and in Newport, Rhode Island, earned their living from the shipping business.

It is an easy move to go from being a pirate or from being a merchant ship captain to becoming a privateer. A privateer is an armed private vessel which has been licensed by the written commission of a sovereign power (e.g., England or Rhode Island) to seize the commercial vessels or war vessels of the enemy. Under the usual commission, the privateer paid a percentage of the vessels or goods seized (the profits of the expedition) to the licensing government, and kept the rest of the profits to be divided among the privateer crew, captain, and ship owner. In short a privateer is a form of legalized pirate.

Privateering was popular from 1550 to 1815, a period in which most countries did not have enough navel vessels to conduct effective maritime wars. With the help of commercial privateers an effective war might be fought at sea. Thus, at the beginning of the War of 1812, Thomas Jefferson pointed out that: “In the United States, every possible encouragement should be given to privateering in time of war with a commercial nation”

Privateers were after easy prizes, so they went after unarmed or lightly armed merchant ships. A typical privateer ship was a fast merchant ship to which swivel guns (a sort of big shotgun, useful as anti-personnel weapons) and some cannons were added. Extra sailors were engaged as crew, to sail captured ships home to a friendly port.

By 1760, Governor Hopkins of Rhode Island wrote English Prime Minister that “many Rhode Island merchants changed the course of their Common Trade into that of Privateering, so that there hath been already about Fifty Privateers fitted out from hence.”

The total of Rhode Island ship captains commissioned by Rhode Island or the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War is probably about 140 privateering ships. [Hawes, Off Soundings”, p. 97] Those 140 privateers were a substantial navy attacking the English merchant ships, even though they did not attack the English Navy war ships.